THE spokesman for the Special Administrative Region (SAR) Government professed bemusement when the CNN anchorwoman quizzed him about the international outcry over the closure of three Hong Kong newspapers and the imposition of martial law throughout much of Kowloon. After all, it was not as if the Beijing-appointed administration was enacting some harsh new repressive laws, the spokesman stressed in his Harvard-accented English in the live satellite link-up in the autumn of 1997. All the SAR authorities were doing was to use a small portion of the Emergency Regulations which the British had put in place precisely for use in times of turbulence - such as the street protests in Mongkok following the outlawing of the Democratic Party after it had been refused registration under the Societies Ordinance for links with 'foreign forces'. The steps taken in response were, the spin-doctor noted, very mild compared to the colonial regime's effective banning of all political parties in Hong Kong until the mid-1980s. No foreign government had ever complained about that. So it was difficult to understand the recall of the US and Canadian consuls general in protest at these latest events, the spokesman told his international audience. As for the latest emergency measures, these were as nothing compared to those available to the British during their 150 years of rule. Holding a glossy pamphlet entitled 'Colonial Atrocities' to the camera, the spokesman reminded viewers how, in 1950, the death penalty was imposed simply for possession of explosives while, in 1967, colonial police quelled riots by shooting their ringleaders. These were actions far more severe than anything the SAR administration was proposing to do. Even when the CNN anchor pointed out that the British had scrapped all these draconian laws before the handover, only to see them reinstated immediately afterwards by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the Chinese spokesman remained unfazed. The colonial regime ruled for 75 years with the security of holding these powers in reserve, he argued. It only abolished them when they were no longer of any use to London, just two years before the handover in a clear attempt to cause trouble for the SAR - a trick Beijing would not fall for. What the SAR spin-doctor could easily have added - in this piece of political fiction - is that Hong Kong will not be the only former colony in which draconian powers introduced by the British linger on long after the colonial power has gone. Nor will it be a unique event if the successor administration seeks to justify its actions by citing colonial precedents. 'Most colonial governments armed themselves with the power to deal with disturbances and their post-colonial successors certainly didn't abolish any of these,' said the political scientist, Dr Norman Miners. 'Israel today defends its blowing up of the houses of suspected terrorists by saying they're just doing the same as the British used to do in colonial Palestine.' Equally, in Singapore, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew cheerily deflects attacks on the state's Internal Security Act by noting that much of it stems from emergency regulations introduced by the British. Set in that context, it is easy to understand why Beijing's appointees in the Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) last week agreed to reinstate the original versions of at least six laws that have been liberalised over the past three years. The move may have ignited a political firestorm by threatening to emasculate the Bill of Rights, but this was a necessary price since these amendments were introduced to conform with the human rights legislation - and so could scarcely be revived while the Bill remained on the statute books in its present form. Legally speaking, there is no need to take such a step. Indeed it is almost certainly in breach of the Basic Law to do so, since the mini-constitution only gives the NPC Standing Committee the power to invalidate existing laws, rather than resurrect old ones. As more moderate members of the PWC legal sub-group such as former legislator Tam Yiu-chung pointed out last week, the SAR Government could have easily introduced similar laws after 1997 instead. In the case of the stiffest of the now-to-be revived measures, all that would be needed would be fresh subsidiary legislation. After all, in a futile conciliatory gesture towards Beijing, the Patten administration has left intact the Emergency Regulations Ordinance under which these measures would be made, and only abolished the outdated regulations first introduced under this law almost a half century ago. But what may be legally possible is clearly not politically preferable. China's appointees would incur far more bad publicity were they forced to go through the painfully slow process of enacting new laws, rather than adopting the far simpler expedient of resurrecting their colonial counterparts. Worse still, from Beijing's point of view, public opinion would certainly require any new legislation to be precisely framed, and be limited to those emergencies which the SAR Government could reasonably argue it requires special powers to deal with. This means they would fall far short of the catch-all regulations to cover any eventuality that existed until earlier this year. So, as in the above fictional account and as in many other former British colonies, it is politically far easier to take any draconian measures under legislation of colonial origin. The SAR spokesman would be correct in asserting that imposing martial law on Kowloon was as nothing to the wide-ranging powers which his British predecessors had enjoyed ever since 1949, when the Emergency Regulations gave the Hong Kong Government the power to censor and suppress publications, detain and deport at will, as well as requisition land or property, and exercise complete control over land, sea and air. Equally, banning the Democratic Party would only represent the exercise of a fraction of the powers available under the Societies Ordinance, which has long given the Registrar of Societies widespread scope to refuse to register groups - so making it virtually impossible for political parties to exist legally for many decades. Much the same is true of the other pre-Bill of Rights powers that Beijing is now intent on reviving, by scrapping the Television Amendment Bill 1993, Telecommunications Amendment Bill 1993, Broadcasting Authority Amendment Bill 1993 and Public Order Amendment Bill 1995. What no one will ever catch any smooth spokesman admitting in two years' time is that, while these wide-ranging powers may have been in the statute books until almost the end of Hong Kong's colonial era, they had long since fallen into disuse. The police, for instance, abandoned any attempt to enforce their power to impose strict controls on public meetings and processions well before they legally lost the power this year. Beijing, on the other hand, already appears to be indicating that it has every intention of fully utilising such powers, with its claim that their absence has already 'undermined administrative power and had an adverse effect on the maintenance of social stability'. That is why last week's announcement worried so many people.